The Willamette River is an active, living body of water and can be dangerous. Water levels rise and fall, currents change, branches and debris move downstream, and boats and jet skis often don’t see swimmers.
Know your limits. It’s easy to jump off a dock, paddle around, and get out without being a strong swimmer. But don’t try swimming far out and get in trouble because you’ve run out of energy.
Swimming in the Willamette River requires an intermediate level of skill at a minimum. Can you swim ½ mile in a pool without stopping? You’ll need that level of strength and ability to be safe in the river. If you’re not that strong a swimmer, wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Fins help, too.
Know the water. The current in the Willamette River varies based on rainfall and the tide. Wind may cause choppiness making swimming challenging even for the strongest of swimmers. Know the weather forecast and avoid swimming in strong winds and thunderstorms.
Beware of cold water. River temperature varies. Be particularly careful May through June when air temperatures are in the 80s but water temperature may be in the 50s. From Late June through August, the water is typically perfect (68-72 degrees). Temps start to drop fast come September. Limit your time in cold water.
HAP strongly advises against swimming once the water temperature drops below 65 degrees. You can check the Willamette River’s current temperature, velocity, and more at the U.S. Geological Survey site.
Don’t swim alone. Have a safety paddler accompany you whenever possible. For visibility and safety there is no substitute for a SUP or kayak paddler. At the very least, swim with a buddy.
Be visible and audible. Carry a safety whistle and wear a brightly colored swim cap. Using a Safety Buoy dry bag is helpful for visibility and will allow you to rest and keep you afloat if needed. You can also carry personal items inside it. You can purchase a Safety Buoy at River Hugger swims for $30. All proceeds of sales benefit Human Access Project.
Swim close to shore. Channel crossing is more dangerous that you might think. Tugboats, barges, and motorboats are not looking for swimmers and may not see you. Even jet skiers often don’t see swimmers. Stay close to shore where it’s safer.
If you want to cross the channel, do so with the HAP River Huggers! We have swims from the Fire Station 21 dock on the east side of the river, Monday- Friday, and Saturday mornings. Intermediate and advanced swimmers are warmly welcomed. Feel free to bring your swim fins.
Don’t swallow the water. Try to avoid getting it in your mouth. Shower thoroughly with soap and warm water after swimming. Don’t swim in the rare instances when a Harmful Algae Bloom (HAB) is present.
Learn CPR. In the time it might take for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could make a difference in someone’s life.
Don’t swim under the influence. Alcohol and drugs can impair your judgment and put you at risk for getting in over your head. Swimming altered is a major contributing factor in many drowning deaths.
Practice “leave no trace” swimming. Pack out what you pack in and bring a plastic bag along. That way, you can pick up a little extra trash on your way out and contribute to the health and beauty of Portland’s natural treasure – the Willamette River.
Be respectful of our dedicated public safety officials. The Fire Station 21 generously makes their dock available to HAP but they always have first priority on the access ramp and on the dock. Don’t ring the bell of the station or interfere with fire station work in any way.
Swimming is risky, like any other outdoor sport. By swimming in the Willamette, you assume the responsibility for that risk, and the Human Access Project cannot be held liable for situations that arise.
Having said that, we hope you’ll join us in loving up our wonderful Willamette River, either with River Hugger swims or in HAP events like The Big Float – or on your own!